Sony’s EX400 is their entry level or budget model TV. Despite the Sony name, this panel can be had for nearly the same price as any generic brand full HD 40" LCD TV. For years Sony has been selling HDTVs in various flavors but never really made the panels, they simply made deals to purchase panels from other makers. Sony would add their own special software sauce, parts and logo and sold TVs.
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While Sony has joined Samsung to produce panels together, they still cannot mass produce large TVs of any kind without outside assistance. So while Sony TVs are generally high quality devices, when you buy one of these 400 series sets, you are getting either a Sharp, Samsung, or AUO panel. You won’t know exactly what you’ve got until you access a secret service menu.
This particular TV has a panel ID of LTY(Z)400HM01 and that turns out to be a Samsung part number. Currently you can pick this TV up in most major chains from around 587 dollars (Walmart) to about 100 dollars more (bestbuy). This TV does not make use of LEDs for the backlight but rather uses the more traditional CCFL backlight. While it might not offer the potential wider color gamut of LEDs, and thinner body, it’s not really a drawback. Unlike the sexier sets that make use of LEDs for the backlight, a CCFL backlight is more even than an edge lit LED/LCD set.
Inputs and basic features
The TV features 4 HDMI inputs, component, composite, VGA and one USB port. There's also a coaxial (RF) input for cable TV and an optical digital out for your sound system. There are no s-video inputs however. Connectivity wise, this is about average and it should be enough for most households. The USB port can be used for firmware upgrades, but will most likely be used for playing back music (as MP3 files) and jpeg images. Sony includes a handful of images built into the TV to display a pretty image or slide show through the bunch. But when it comes to viewing images, it’s fine for hands-off viewing and not much else.
You can choose the speed of the show, and how the images transitions and that’s fine. But if you plan on using the set to pixel peep forget about it. You can’t zoom in on images and that really hurts when a image in portrait mode presents itself. In case you’ve never tried it, viewing images in portrait mode on widescreen displays is rather painful. Why an image cannot be zoomed in or panned in any fashion is beyond me.
Dialing in the image
Thankfully Sony does include just enough image control options to allow someone without access the secret service menu the ability to get a decent picture out of this panel. Along with the obligatory saturation, brightness, preset color temps and contrast settings, you also have access to gamma and separate blue, red, and green settings. Dynamic contrast can be turned off and on, and the backlight level can be controlled. There are other picture options, but most are left turned off like noise reduction and mpeg artifact filters.
There is also another feature that is gaining popularity in flat panel TVs across all price ranges and it’s a brightness control that varies depending on the light level in the room. I generally don’t care for this feature because the sensors are generally very dumb things to be honest. By default this TV has the feature on and I spent a few minutes wondering why I couldn’t get a bright punchy image from this set. I started to wonder if I had a lemon on my hands. Once I got around to this feature and turned it off, everything looked fine.
When light levels are high, unless the sensor is getting a straight on view of the bright light, it still dials in a light level that’s too low. In my case I have large windows to the side and rear of the TV and it never really detects that light unless the sun is shining directly. My advice is to turn it off right out of the box, dial in your settings, and then turn it on and see how it works for you in both bright and dark situations.
Does anyone really care? Do any flat panel TVs have good sound? Does any real cinephile not have some kind of surround sound set-up? OK, so since this TV isn’t one of those super slim LED units, there is room for something that resembles a couple of speakers. They are at the rear and fire down. Sounds a bit strange, but when you aren’t expecting much, they don’t sound all that bad. Honestly I only gave the speakers a spin for the purpose of this review. They are always off, my sound system handles this duty just fine thank you. Back to the speakers in this unit, the sound isn’t atrocious, they sound fine and will get the job done, but not much else. Why people spend good money for a high def image, and spend no money on the sound to go with it is beyond me. Moving on...
So most people would skip right down to this part, and honestly I can’t blame anyone, that’s the cat’s pajamas when you buy a flat panel TV right? For the technical types, one of the first things you look for is the black level that a TV can produce. In the early days of LCD and plasma TVs, it was a serious Achilles heel, as these TVs could muster up only a dark grey in place of something that was supposed to be black if it was decent. That has for the most part been resolved as even a bargain basement TV can produce something that appears to be a nice dark black in most situations.
But in dark rooms and especially when viewed from off angle (not in the center sweet spot) things are not so rosy and this TV is no exception. With the TV set to a brightness of around 52-54 (going lower will not result in a darker black) when viewed straight on, the black is dare I say inky. Better yet that’s while displaying a nice, bright white text. The opening of the movie Hancock with Will Smith comes to mind. But this isn’t an expensive IPS panel. Move off angle, just 20 to 25 degrees and contrast takes and hit and there goes that deep black. The color also becomes washed out and artifacts and a shift in color occur as well.
Also in a dark room, you can see light leakage and uneven backlight bleeding through. It’s faint when viewed from head on, and downright ugly if you get close to the screen or view it from the side. But for the money, the contrast is very punchy. The color is fine, for some reason it just never blew me away even with blu ray discs. It’s fine, but something is missing and I can’t quiet put my finger on it. The last TV I reviewed, a budget Vizio panel Vizio VO370M had color that really impressed me with HD cable or a blu ray disc. That panel, most likely an LG part, really stunned for the money in that department, and this Samsung panel just didn’t.
What Sony did really nail down is the dynamic backlight. It creates the illusion of a very high end LCD/LED TV in some situations. For example when a scene goes totally black, the backlight doesn’t drop, it just turns off. Also when the backlight does drop during a low light scene, it’s smart about it. Rather than jump around, it picks a level based on a particular scene and sticks with it. Some TVs have a dynamic backlight that’s a flickering, annoying mess, so kudos on that feature being implemented correctly.
I only mention this because Sony implemented this poorly. Having owned and set up many flat panel TVs, here’s my feeling about stands. The stand should sit on it’s own, on a flat surface, without any kind of assembly, ready to accept the TV. Once the TV has been lowered, the TV should sit securely without risk of tipping or falling, and only need one or more screws as an extra safety measure. Sony failed here. The stand, something that should be simple and one piece, isn’t one piece and requires assembly. It’s not terribly complicated mind you, but it requires a few screws that will most likely get lost if you wall mount or return the TV. Another negative, the stand does not swivel. And since image quality takes a hit off angle, a swivel stand would be nice to keep the viewer in the sweet spot.
I actually liked the GUI of this set. It’s a simple black/white transparent affair that really shows off the contrast of the panel. It’s generally easy to get around, the text is clear, and settings are for the most part easy to understand and control.
Well what can I say, this TV is no looker. The bezel isn’t the chunkiest on the block, but it isn’t svelte either. It’s not the thinnest TV, but it’s not as fat as some entry level Philips TVs. What really killed it is the ugly grey color Sony chose for the bottom part of the bezel. So why did I even buy this TV? It was my third choice when I was browsing and finally decided to break down and buy yet another TV. My first choice, a Samsung 500 series was out of stock, same for my second choice, and LG model. So I picked the Sony and had it for exactly one week.
Just a few days ago I saw the brand spankin’ new replacement for this TV, now with a 420 part number instead of 400. So with that in mind, only buy this TV if it’s been discounted significantly from it’s current price range. Under 500 would be reasonable since it’s now on its way out. As I write this, the new TV is just starting to hit the web, so don’t expect discounts on this model right away. If both models are available, and the 400 has little or no discount, go with the new set. In general TVs are improving, even if those improvements are slight with each new model. It’s rare than a newer set performs at a lower level than the model it's replacing. If you can put up with the off angle issues, and blah styling, this TV is a solid value.
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Amount Paid (US$): 587